5 Keys for the U.S. Ahead of Massive Honduras Match
March 23, 2017
WITH ZERO POINTS from its first two World Cup qualifiers and a recent wave of injuries causing all sorts of roster strife, the United States national team will have its back to the wall against Honduras—a team that will be motivated to land a devastating blow against one of CONCACAF’s giants.
The long list of American players unavailable due to injuries, suspensions, or personal matters includes: Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood, DeAndre Yedlin, Timothy Chandler, Brad Guzan, and Jermaine Jones. On top of that, there are legitimate questions about the availability of Jordan Morris (ankle) and Clint Dempsey (only recently recovered from an irregular heartbeat).
Honduras clearly smells blood and Friday's match at Avaya Stadium (10:30pm ET; FS1, UniMas) will be the biggest gut check the U.S. men have faced in years. Here are my pregame thoughts.
The Veterans Must Take Charge
It wouldn't be surprising to see some of the newer U.S. players rise to the occasion in a game like this. To me, the biggest questions revolve around the lock starters: John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, and Jozy Altidore. Every single one of these players has concerns heading into the game.
Brooks, maybe the most talented American central defender ever, comes into the game on the heels of an absolute stinker against Costa Rica. Geoff Cameron might play out of position at right back and he has only recently returned from a long layoff due to a knee injury. The same can be said for Tim Howard.
Michael Bradley is still trying regain his pre-2014 World Cup form and Jozy Altidore desperately needs to score an important goal. Pulisic is on the path to becoming a special player but how he will fare at his age remains an open question.
If these players all perform up to their capabilities, the U.S. should have a good night. If not, it could be ugly.
THe Backline is unsettled
There are so many different ways U.S. boss Bruce Arena can approach the backline and it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds. Right now, the only lock starter in a known position is John Brooks, who will start at left-central defender. Everything else is a bit of a mystery.
Whether or not Cameron starts in central defense or right back will come down to how Arena values the Cameron-Brooks pairing that was very good at the Copa America Centenario. If Arena pushes Cameron to right back, how does he view a pairing of Brooks with either Omar Gonzalez or Walker Zimmerman? This assumes that Arena won’t want to pair Brooks with another lefty in either Matt Besler or Tim Ream.
Pairing Brooks with Zimmerman or Gonzalez presents risks. The Brooks-Gonzalez pairing was a disaster against Costa Rica last November. Was that just a blip or do these two not play well together? As for Brooks-Zimmerman, is the FC Dallas mainstay still too new to the team for this type of game?
At right back, it will come down to Cameron, Michael Orozco, and Graham Zusi. If Arena wants to continue with the Brooks-Cameron pairing, then Orozco will have to start at right back.
Then, at left back, DaMarcus Beasley, Tim Ream, Matt Besler, and Jorge Villafana are all competing for the start. Ream and Besler are normally central defenders. Beasley and Villafana have played limited minutes in 2017, although Villafana featured in one of the January camp friendlies and managed to play for Santos Laguna right before the international break.
In one sense, the most optimum backline would be Villafana-Brooks-Cameron-Orozco. Not ideal but it probably presents he fewest risks. Central defense is the position that you can least afford to make a mistake. Then again, Arena might opt for something different as he has seen these players in camp all week.
Making sense of the midfield
If the U.S. goes with a 4-4-2, you know Michael Bradley and Pulisic will start in the midfield. If it goes with a 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1), then Bradley starts in the midfield and Pulisic plays one of the wing positions.
Among the likely starts in the midfield are Alejandro Bedoya, Darlington Nagbe, Sebastian Lletget, Dax McCarty, Kellyn Acosta, and Sacha Kljestan.
McCarty only really makes sense if Arena goes with two holding midfielders to play alongside Bradley. Acosta remains the most in-form MLS-based midfielder although it would be surprising to see him start in a game like this. Bedoya seems like a safer bet with his experience, although will he play centrally or on the outside?
Does Kljestan’s omission from the orginail roster, and late inclusion as an injury replacement, mean he is just a backup? Perhaps, but who knows how the various injuries have altered Arena's thinking?
It would be worth noting that one of Arena’s best-ever coaching moves came in 2002 when he named Pablo Mastroeni to the World Cup team—as an injury replacement for Chris Armas. Arena proceeded to start Mastroeni in the World Cup opener, and Mastroeni promptly shut down Luis Figo, the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year. So injury replacements are not necessarily bench players, at least when Arena is involved.
Can the U.S. attack out wide?
The biggest concern in this game, however, will be the ability to generate offense from out wide. Can either Orozco, Cameron, or Zusi attack from the right back position and work well with the midfield? Zusi is likely the best crosser but how well does he really read the game as a right back?
From the left back spot the question is the same. Beasley and Villafana are more experienced at the position but both could be rusty considering how little playing time they have received in recent weeks. If Arena goes with either Ream or Besler, neither will likely push forward much. How would that affect the left wing’s ability to create without any support from the left back moving forward?
Looking into the midfield, Pulisic looks promising but who will he combine with? Can Nagbe and Bedoya stretch the game if playing outside opposite Pulisic?
If the U.S. can attack from outside, the game in the middle also opens up. If it can’t, then the U.S. will be easy to defend.
The U.S. likes to play the underdog
While it might be a bit of a stretch to say the U.S. is the underdog in this game, expectations for a World Cup qualifying home game have never rbeen lower. Fortunately, that might be a huge boost.
At its core and in its history, the U.S. thrives when it is the underdog. It did so at successful World Cups in 2002 and 2014, and again last year in the Copa America Centenario.
The Yanks'goal in this game is simply three points and Arena really doesn’t care how ugly the team has to play as long as it ends in victory. For him, improving the squad's style will come later. That is why he is going with a veteran team that includes players who 1) know how to win and 2) won't get frustrated in a CONCACAF game where things can get ugly.
But lower expectations tend to bring out the scrappiness in American teams. That is not a long-term solution but for now, it’s all that is needed.